Saboteur in Chief

Donald Trump; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

Writing about her friend the famously unpleasant Evelyn Waugh, Frances Donaldson reflected that

the weakness in attributing any particular quality to Evelyn is that he could not allow anyone to dictate his attitude or virtues to him. Consequently, if he was accused of some quality usually regarded as contemptible, where other men would be aroused to shame or hypocrisy, he studied it, polished up his performance, and, treating it as both normal and admirable, made it his own…. Consequently, it was never any good looking straight at him to learn the truth about him.

Donald Trump is not often compared to a great English novelist, and the word “studied” does not apply—he is all instinct. But his instincts lead him in precisely the same direction. He disorients us by wearing his most contemptible qualities as if they were crown jewels, by brandishing as trophies what others would conceal as shameful secrets. He uses his dirty linen as a cloth with which to polish up his performance.

Thus, on the evening of October 24, the day it was discovered that explosive devices had been mailed to several leading Democrats, Trump, at a rally in Mosinee, Wisconsin, mouthed the expected platitudes about coming together in “peace and harmony.” Any politician of the kind we are used to would have left it at that, keeping a straight face and willing his audience to forget his own hate-mongering. But Trump did not leave it at that. He tickled his fans with a teasing acknowledgment that this emollient rhetoric was unreal and that stirring up hatred was, and would remain, his essential effect: “By the way, do you see how nice I’m behaving tonight? Have you ever seen this?” The message was not subtle: I’m adjusting my act a little tonight but don’t worry, normal service will resume shortly.

Or, while any other politician accused of breaching electoral law to cover up a sexual liaison with a porn star would try to avoid the subject, Trump feeds the story by calling Stormy Daniels “Horseface” on Twitter. Or, while any conventional party leader would want to erase from the public memory an incident in which one of his candidates (Greg Gianforte) violently assaulted a reporter (Ben Jacobs) for asking him a question, Trump returned to it a year and a half later to propel it back into the headlines just as the murder of another journalist (Jamal Khashoggi) was on everyone’s mind. Or, while any other rash Tweeter might at least privately regret tweeting that the women demonstrating against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court were “paid professionals,” Trump circled back to simultaneously retreat and up the ante: “The paid D.C. protesters are now ready to REALLY protest because they haven’t gotten their checks—in other words, they weren’t paid!”

And so on. When Guy…

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